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'An uphill fight': Black doctoral students feel unsupported by University

Daniel Johnson poses for a portrait in front of Carroll Hall on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. Johnson is a second-year doctoral student at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Some Black graduate students, such as Simone Wilson and Daniel Johnson, say they don't feel supported by the University.

Wilson said she felt isolated because of her race when she came to campus for her doctoral program. She said she has also experienced microaggressions and “psychological harm" from a professor.

Now the co-president of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association, Wilson said her experience has become more positive — but she had to find that support on her own.  

As one of the association's leaders, Wilson has spoken with many people of color who considered leaving the University — and has felt that way herself.

“It’s been an uphill fight,” Wilson said. “It takes a lot and I feel for those that are not as self-directed as me and I see very easily why students would not stay.”

Wilson is researching the experiences of Black faculty and students at institutions such as UNC.

“I have been interviewing different students — specifically Black students — and our overwhelming sentiment is 'No, we are not supported here,'" she said. 

According to data presented on the UNC Graduate School's website, Black students make up about nine percent of graduate and professional students.

UNC is ranked fifth among public universities for the most Black doctoral recipients, a survey by the National Science Foundation based on data from 2017 to 2021 shows.

But Wilson said graduate students of color "feel siloed or isolated in way, shape or form.”

Although he has found professors and mentors at the University, Park doctoral fellow Daniel Johnson said the Hussman School of Journalism and Media has done very little to improve its environment for non-white students.

He said he believes surveys would help the University acknowledge its diversity issues and provide a more comforting environment for Black doctoral students.

“Since I have been here, I have not gotten a survey saying, ‘Hey, do you feel like you are being supported as an African American student.’ I’ve never been directly asked that and I’ve been here three, four years,” Johnson said.

Deen Freelon, former graduate associate professor at the Hussman School, was Johnson’s mentor but said he was unhappy about the direction the University was heading. 

"As a faculty member, I represented the University whenever I presented or whenever I left and did anything, and that became increasingly untenable as things went on and as the list of decisions I strongly disagree with piled up," he said. 

Johnson said seeing Black professors leave the school without new ones joining the faculty indicates that there is a problem. 

“Without faculty members that look like them, and come from their backgrounds, I think that’s an issue where you are left floundering,” Johnson said. 

Ashley Addison is a doctor of pharmacy candidate and the vice president for diversity and inclusion in the Graduate and Professional Student Government and said she feels supported within her graduate program.

She suggested the University hold town halls or meetings with the Black graduate and professional student community to address concerns. She also said GPSG is working to improve its diversity initiatives.

"A goal of mine this year is to make sure that I can connect with the student body more, especially post-COVID — to figure out what types of programs and initiatives they need to feel supported, because my story may not be the story of every student that walks Carolina," she said. 

In an email statement, UNC Media Relations said the University's work is focused on creating "a culture of care to support students' personal and professional goals while they're pursuing a graduate or professional degree."

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